Democracy expert recommends a dash of proportional representation

Steven Bittle thinks he can improve Canadian democracy. For two years the senior research officer with the federal government’s law commission…

Steven Bittle thinks he can improve Canadian democracy.

For two years the senior research officer with the federal government’s law commission crisscrossed the country, asking Canadians if they felt represented in Ottawa and their provincial jurisdictions.

“One of the first things we heard about was vote-to-seat distortion typical of first-past-the-post systems, where a party without the majority of votes can win a majority of seats and govern as though it had 100 per cent of seats,” said Bittle on Tuesday in Whitehorse.

“The second thing we heard about was the incredible divisiveness you see with the kind of top-down, adversarial decision making of first-past-the-post.”

Documented responses from 445 Canadians at public meetings held coast-to-coast showed concern for women, minorities and aboriginals, all of whom are under-represented in the House of Commons, said Bittle.

Regional representation was a concern too, because major parties, like the Bloc Quebecois, don’t represent all parts of the country, he said.

“There were lots of things, all adding up to, ‘It’s time to think about changing the electoral system.’”

Bittle’s fix is to introduce elements of proportional representation into Canada’s traditional first-past-the-post system.

In the current federal system, the candidate with the most votes wins the prize, a seat in Parliament.

But it’s not a case of majority rule, it’s an example of loser rule — the winner rarely pulls more than 40 per cent of the vote.

The best “made-in-Canada” solution the commission came up with is a “mixed-member proportional system,” said Bittle.

“Two thirds of the members of Parliament would continue to be elected with the first-past-the-post system, but the remaining third would be elected on a proportional basis.

“Basically the idea is that a party that earned 40 per cent of the vote deserves 40 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.”

January’s federal election rewarded separatists and punished western Liberals, urban Conservatives, the NDP and the Green Party, according to Fair Vote Canada, a federal non-profit organization that lobbies for electoral reform.

In Alberta, for example, the Conservatives won 100 per cent of the province’s seats with 65 per cent of the vote, leaving 500,000 Albertans who didn’t vote Conservative with no elected representation.

More than 400,000 Conservative voters in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver should have been able to elect nine MPs, but elected none, said Fair Vote.

The NDP attracted one million more votes than the Bloc Quebecois, but won 29 seats to the Bloc’s 51.

And the Green Party won 650,000 votes across Canada, but won no seats, while 475,000 Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada elected 20 MPs.

The solution to this imbalance could be achieved if one third of Canada’s 308 MPs were elected by proportional representation, said Bittle.

“When voters go to the polls on election day, they would actually have two votes,” he said.

“Just because voters like a particular person as a constituency representative doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with that person’s party or the party’s politics.

“On election day they would go to a polling station and vote for their constituency MP as they do currently.

“They would also have a second vote for the party that they most identify with.”

Such a system might have been welcomed in the Yukon, where 48.5 per cent of voters supported the incumbent Liberal MP Larry Bagnell despite broad dissatisfaction with the Liberal Party of Canada.

The math is complicated, but it essentially breaks down to dividing the number of votes for a party by the number of votes from the first-past-the post race, said Bittle.

The party with the highest quotient gets the first proportional representation seat designated for the electoral district, he said.

“That process continues until all the seats have been awarded.”

In January, “essentially the party that came second would have also got a seat in the House of Commons.”

Bittle recommended capping the number of seats in Ottawa at 311, so that each of Canada’s three territories could have two MPs: one chosen by first-past-the-post, and one chosen by proportional representation.

A certain number of “list seats” would have to be designated for various regions of the country, he added.

But the same rules could work for the provincial and territorial legislative assemblies.

If such a model were applied to the 2002 Yukon election, the Yukon Party would have won eight seats, the Liberals five and the NDP would have remained the same with five seats, said Bittle.

A potential drawback to the model is its tendency to elect minority governments.

“In most cases, you would see the end of majority governments, so we would be in the situation of constant minority governments,” said Bittle.

“In the first-past-the-post system, there is little impetus for parties to work together, because parties are always wanting to attract the majority of votes and govern from that perspective.

“That mentality would have to change under a mixed-member proportional system.

“Consensual-style decision making would be the norm.

“Does that make the system less stable?

“Evidence from other countries says no.”

Bittle compared proportional representation options for Canada to similar systems in New Zealand, Italy, Israel, Germany and Scotland.

“The one that we’ve proposed in our report is modeled closely to the Scottish one.”

Bittle is speaking about electoral reform tonight at the Fireside Room in the Yukon Inn in downtown Whitehorse at 7 p.m.

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